By Julian Smith
Spring 2014: Native North Americans had been using shell items for ornamental and ceremonial purposes for thousands of years before the Europeans arrived. In the late 16th and early 17th centuries, before European colonies sprang up along the East Coast, the metal tools received from traders in ships allowed coastal Indians to begin manufacture of large numbers of white and purple beads known as wampum from local marine shells. These wampum beads soon took on deeply symbolic meanings and came to be greatly desired by powerful tribes further inland, such as the Five Nations of the Iroquois and the Susquehannock. In return the inland tribes provided furs the coastal peoples could barter to the Europeans. When the first colonists arrived in New Netherland, the Dutch colonial province that extended from Delaware to Connecticut, they quickly found ways to insert themselves as middlemen into this trade.
A little over a decade ago, Duane Esarey of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey took note of elaborate marine shell ornaments in recurring geometric and animal shapes at numerous sites. Esarey was intrigued to learn that, despite all the research on wampum, next to nothing was known about these standardized marine shell (SMS) ornaments, as he came to call them. Even though archaeologists had been aware of them for over a century, there was virtually no mention of the ornaments in colonial documents, and no production sites had been found.
So Esarey conducted the first comprehensive survey and analysis of the SMS industry and its role in the trade between Europeans and Native Americans during the colonial settlement of the Northeast.